That's Laura Bush's reply to her mother-in-law when asked what she "does," brought back to me in reading reviews of W (though they attribute it being said to a different character; no, haven't seen the movie, come on, babysitter?): "I read. I smoke. I admire." It’s so Whartonesque, and so sad; such a cave to the requirement that a woman in her position be ineffectual and decorative. I read—an independent act, a richly exploratory act, but a lonely and interior one; I smoke—again, independent, transgressive even, but in a way that harms only the subject; I admire—the only outer-directed action being that of a mirror, a springboard, a prop, in effect nonexistent until the real people come along and need you. She turned herself into a flaneur on an exclusive, stunted boulevard. And I’ve been there, even to the specifics on a lower scale: With my own family and the ones I’ve married or partnered into, I’m an outsider suffered a place at the table to the degree I can provide a charming reflection or render myself invisible.
And it’s a tiring state to maintain; you can hear the exhaustion in that laconic delivery, can’t you?
But this made me laugh: Daphne Merkin writing about Sophie Calle, relegated to the NYT Sunday Fashion Supplement (which I'm slavish about reading for the perfume reviews). She's the one who did the piece where a man broke up with her via e-mail, and she gave that e-mail to a wide group of women of substance, who then used it to create works of their own (a scholarly essay, poems, drawings, more). My favorite was by an editor who corrected the e-mail's grammar and wording. As Merkin quotes one academic: "it's rare in contemporary art to make people laugh." The title is the funniest part of all: "Take Care of Yourself."
Of course, there are those who pound on her "narcissism," a critic who calls her work "more in the territory of mental disorder than art," "soft-core identity politics to advance/indulge/realize herself." Oh lord, and more than a hundred years ago we have poets proclaiming "Nothing human is alien to me" and "I sing the body electric"; no quibble with a man seeing himself as the universal human, is there? But here's Merkin with the big finish:
"[Calle says] 'The way I use stories protects me from bitterness.' Which leaves her as she wants to be seen: as a lone ranger of a sort, a defiantly risk-taking woman in a man's world, making her mark, like it or not."
Photo: Another enigma that splits the prodigy/late bloomer mold: Jean Rhys. Brilliant youthful work, silence; terrifying midlife work, silence; and as an old woman, one of the greatest novels of the last century, Wide Sargasso Sea. In between, she had husbands and children and lovers and drinks. Her letters are terribly moving; in one, she advises her adult daughter to go the chemist's and get vitamin C and calcium powder for her children, that that was one of the things she did for her daughter when she was little, during the war, and she grew up healthy and tall.